Should we take ‘stakeholders’ out of engagement?
At Spur Communication, it’s a question we’ve explored for a while. The word stakeholder is deeply embedded in the vocabulary of our field. As strategic communication and public engagement consultants, it wasn’t uncommon for our team to refer to stakeholder mapping, stakeholder engagement and liaising with key stakeholder groups on a daily basis.
But in the last few months, we’ve noticed a shift. Recently one of our clients, the Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure, shared their new policy to use the term ‘interested party’ moving forward. We followed suit and adopted that language in our communication strategy to guide long-term repairs along Highway 1.
our ongoing commitment to equitable language
At Spur, we are word nerds and passionate advocates for equitable and inclusive language. So much so that we produce a guide to equitable language that catalogues a wide range of words and phrases with lesser-known and harmful origins, words that can trigger equity-deserving communities. When organizations use these words in their communication or engagements, they can create unsafe spaces, perpetuate prejudices and ultimately push out the very people you need to pull in.
Curious about what we saw with our clients and sector, we set out to understand the origins of ‘stakeholder.’ Like any etymological exercise (etymology is the study of the origin of words), the answers aren’t always crystal clear, as language is a living thing, constantly changing and adopting new meanings in different eras by different cultures.
You are likely familiar with the more modern corporate affiliation, wherein stakeholder means anyone who stands to benefit (or not) from something. A stakeholder has a vested interest in the decision-making process if those decisions will directly impact them, which is why it is so important to know who they are, their needs and expectations, and how best to engage them in a meaningful way.
As best we can glean, the word stake was first documented in 1708 as an English term to describe a person who holds wagers of a gamble. But others point out that over time, it took on a colonial context, as a stakeholder was the person who drove a stake into the land to demarcate the land they were occupying (stealing) from Indigenous peoples. And as a firm deeply committed to embedded reconciliation in our practice, that just doesn’t sit right with us.
why the shift to interest holder?
As Mark Reed points out, it is possible ‘stakeholder’ was not originally, explicitly linked to colonialists using stakes to lay claim to Indigenous lands. However, “it is clear that the word should be avoided when working with Indigenous groups, and there is an argument for avoiding the word more generally as part of the wider decolonization of research.”
This also resonates with us:
The concept of a stake is something that is owned, and that may be held, possessed or hoarded. These are Western ways of being that are at odds with Indigenous concepts of sharing, and by using the word “stakeholder” to describe those who have an interest in an issue, we use a Western term that implicitly normalizes Western ways of being as the norm in research.
where we’ve landed
Moving forward, Spur Communication will use the term ‘interest holder’ where the word stakeholder would have typically appeared. Holding an interest does not necessarily have to have a colonial or economic meaning. If a policy, program or action impacts you, you might be interested in it. And if that policy is something we have the privilege of supporting through our work, we’ll want to hear from you. We hope you see our language is warm, welcoming and inclusive. We hope we can facilitate a safer space than it might have felt before.
And if it’s not, we will always commit to learning more and doing better.